June 19, 2008

Weekly Language Usage Tips: practicable and practical, pretense, pretence, and pretext

Posted in practical/practicable, pretense, pretence, and pretext at 11:21 pm by dlseltzer

Weekly Language Usage Tips

I’ve been bumping heads with the IRB over the past couple of days. It’s frustrating because some of the IRB staff are not familiar with health services research or the health system itself which leads to what we might consider to be “crazy” concerns. And once people become very invested in their stance, it’s difficult for them to back down (this is true for all of us). As I mentioned earlier, Chris Ryan and I are working to smooth out some of the bumps, but this week’s fights (or rather, discussions) with the IRB inspired my first tip: the difference between practicable and practical.

Tip 1: Practicable and practical

We all know that in order to get a waiver of informed consent or written informed consent or any other kind of waiver, we have to provide a justification that indicates that the research could not practicably be carried out without the waiver.

From the way I’ve seen it used in IRB protocols, it seems common for investigators and research assistants to believe that the two words are synonyms, and the IRB uses “practicable” to sound more official, smarter, or pompous (take your pick). However, they’d be wrong. Although there is overlap in meaning, the two adjectives have distinct meanings, and the IRB’s use of “practicable” is precisely what the IRB means.

“Practical” has many meanings (and I’m only including a few here):

Makes sense and can be carried out

The golden rule is practical for people to heed, these days.

Based on reality or action rather than ideas or imagination

The wishing well has practical uses as well.

Suitable, appropriate

Since we’re going to work in the mud, those galoshes are practical.

“Practicable” is limited to one meaning

Able to be carried out, feasible

We’d have to give up the research; the study wouldn’t be practicable without the waiver.

Trying to do my homework when the electricity is out just isn’t practicable.

Something can be “practicable” without being “practical”…

Building this castle is practicable but considering the billions of dollars it will cost, it’s not very practical.

…and something can be “practical” without being “practicable.”

It would be a practical accomplishment if we were to leave Iraq; however, now that we are there it isn’t really practicable.

The negative of both words is made by adding “im” to the beginning of the word (i.e. impracticable, impractical). [NOTE: we used to make practical negative by adding “un,” but that is no longer the case.]

The only other thing I want to say about “practically” in the sense of “almost”…

We’re practically home; only two more miles.

…is that while this usage has become common, some still think of it as slang and in formal writing, it would be best to avoid it.

Writing all this practically made me forget my little altercation with the IRB!

Tip 2: Pretense, pretense, and pretext

A reader wrote: Another suggestion – the difference between pretext and pretense. I heard someone on NPR this morning (a journalist, in the On the Media Program) say “We did it under the pretext that . . . ” and I believe she should have said pretense.

Well, without the entire context, it’s hard to tell. It could be either. But here’s today’s tip #2—I threw pretense in, too, because, why not?

“Pretense” means

A false or studied appearance

While nervous about his priority score, the investigator put on a pretense of nonchalance.

A feigned reason or excuse

He said he was coming to learn to play tennis but he came under false pretenses; he really wanted to steal the tennis balls.

“Pretence” is the UK version of “pretense” and means

Pretending with intention to deceive
A false appearance

In other words, pretence and pretense are synonyms and can be used interchangeably (but not in the same document, PLEASE).

While nervous about his priority score, the investigator put on a pretence of nonchalance.

He said he was coming to learn to play tennis but he came under false pretences; he really wanted to steal the tennis balls.

“Pretext” is a little trickier. It means:

Something put forward to conceal a true purpose; an excuse.

The compliments were a pretext for her patronizing thoughts.

The investigator used his writing responsibilities as a pretext for not attending the meeting.

A “pretext” is something that is put forward to conceal a truth: A “pretense” or “pretence” is a false show, a more overt act intended to deceive.



  1. ora said,

    Thankfully I have never written an IRB protocol. But why would you use “practicable” when you can use the more straightforward “possible” instead?

    • Michael said,

      “Thankfully” is not the same as “I am thankful.”

  2. Bee While said,

    Thanks for explaining the pretence and pretense confusion. But I’m Australian, which one do I use. I guess we just choose whether we’re more the traditional type or the republican type hmmm?

  3. Tsquare said,

    Great Blog!……There’s always something here to make me laugh…Keep doing what ya do 🙂

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